Teaching Assistant Terror!


My background is in medieval english but as part of a big mainly language project I was given the chance to do a PhD but in Art History. I am nearly a year in and everything is going OK with my own research but I am due to start as a teaching assistant next semester. However because I am now based in Art History I will be teaching this subject. I have just been sent a couple of outlines of lectures for the course but it is stuff I have never studied, not having an art history background. In fact half of it I'm not even sure what it is about. How am I ever going to take two-hour seminars with undergraduates! Has anybody else experience of having to teach the unknown? Should I say I can't do it. I know if I was teaching any of the courses in the English department I would feel confident in my knowledge and I think I should really at least have some idea of what the art history course is about before teaching it. Help!


lol. when i was in my first year - i lost a whole semester teaching this subject that i had no clue about. i had to learn it to teach it. it was horrible. soon the students found me out and i had assessors sitting my class. it is amongst the hardest times in my life. ever since i decided never to teach any remotely difficult subject - even in my area. the trauma is not worth it. that said, i learnt a lot. but am sure there are easier and better ways to learn. in the end, i quit with about two weeks remaining to the end of term. i couln't take it anymore. caught a flight and went on a month's holiday to recover. never again. am glad i can laugh about it now. at the time i even lost weight worrying about the damn teaching.

if i were you i wouldn't.

good luck in your decision.


Read through the prescribed or recommended texts in the subject/course and then hope to god that you don't get any smartass know-it-all students in your class who will try to interject during your lecture to try and show you up.

I've known at least one academic who was a colleague of mine put in similar circumstances as you. He was a post-doc though, and the topic was 'loosely' (very loosely) within the vicinity of his research background.


oh, i forgot to mention that i taught 3rd years. first years are less likely to find you out. so.... you can get away with moments of lack of clarity.


from my experience of talking with teaching assistants, its generally quite common for graduate students to end up teaching subjects they may not know much about. Have confidence in yourself and enjoy your teaching experience. As a graduate student you are of level of maturity and academic standing, such that you ahould be able to teach your self fairly advanced subject material and subsequently be able to exlain that material at an approapriate level to undergraduates. enjoy


Thanks for the replies. I am in betwen what jojo and rjb203 have said but I think a PhD means facing new challenges and opportunities (never problems!!) so I will give it a try. It means spending Yule/Xmas reading up on the subject but it will probably be more interesting than making conversation or watching Morecombe and Wise reruns at family get togethers!
I'll let you know how it goes in the New Year.


hey pamw, at my uni in the training provided for TAs they repeatedly said that TAs don't teach, they facilitate, and that you can technically do that without knowing anything about the subject. the point being that students learn much more when they work on something themselves than when someone tells them the answers.
i'm still lucky to be teaching a topic i know. but i have realized that i have been trying to "teach" them all the things i think they should know, rather than letting them find out for themselves, with the result that they don't really learn anything at all sometimes.


taking the theory to the test, i taught one class for a friend who had to leave on short notice, on a topic i knew nothing about and didn't even have the course guideline. i wouldn't say it was brilliant, but it worked. still, i'm glad that it was just one class, cause the tension was so much worse than in my own classes where i just know that i know enough about the topic to handle most situations that might come up.
overall, i do think that the key thing you need to teach first year students is "how to study", that is, how to read, how to argue a point, how to write an essay, how to find stuff in the library, etc. this is not easy. but if you manage to teach them that, they will learn the rest by themselves. and you will have taught them something a lot more important than some facts about art history.


I do a lot of teaching as part of my funding, but I've been a teacher for years anyway. I have often faced situations where I'm teaching something I'm not 100% about, and it's by far the best way to learn something yourself. My advice would be to get your head around the basics, then go for it. The most important thing is to *appear* totally confident. If they ask you stuff you don't know, do one of three things (in order of preference):

1. rely on the old favourite of setting that as a task for them to find out for next time. If you can't get away with that...

2. tell them it's something you'll be looking at in detail next time. If you can't get away with that...

3. be honest and say you don't know but will clarify it next time.

The most tempting thing to do is Make it up, but of you do that and get found out they will lose all respect for you.

Teaching is great though, enjoy it :)


"overall, i do think that the key thing you need to teach first year students is "how to study", that is, how to read, how to argue a point, how to write an essay, how to find stuff in the library, etc. this is not easy. "

That's an interesting point, Shani.
I completely agree and yet I'm asking myself if this is not a big waste of the lecturer's and students time.

If the students need one year to learn how to study, how can they have enough time to actually start learning something relevant? Also, with the UK system and a full-time Bachelor often only being three years of study, I wonder how much value they can gain from such a degree.

It's not in all universities in the UK, but quite frankly, what is happening in some institutions is a joke.


o.stoll i agree but then i don't. i guess there are several issues here. for one, how are you going to learn how to study without actually doing it? so if you're teaching the students how to study you'd best do it by making them study (with guidance on the how) and that will mean that they automatically pick up some "content", too. another point is that how are they ever supposed to really learn "content" if they never learn how to study (how to meaningfully read an article for example)? they can just learn to throw back at you what you make them learn by heart. some might learn how to study in time but overall i think you'll be more efficient if you teach them how to study and then profit from them knowing how to study. or something like that, i guess i'm waffling a bit, has been a long day


I agree. But sometimes I ask myself what value does the highschool provide in this country? A Levels and GSCE to test the student's ability to study at university level?

Why don't they learn how to study at university level why they are at school. What are they being prepared for at school. Sorry to say this, but I think the system in the UK sucks, big time. First year students arrive at university and some of them don't belong there and clearly haven't got a clue. But it's not them to be blamed. I blame the Blair Ex-government, for increasing university student numbers without thinking about the consequences.

It's been a long day and I think the winter depression has taken over my brain, so please excuse my negativity.


Hey Pamw we have all been there the best advice I can give is to stay 24 hrs ahead of your students! That's all you need for now.


Hi Pamw, I am in a similar situation to you - next term I am due to be teaching a topic which I am unfamiliar with... I am a bit apprehensive but pretty sure that I can stay one step ahead of most of the students by reading up beforehand (there always appears to be the inevitable one or two!) ;)
I find that another good technique to use if they ask a question you're not sure about is to ask the other students what they think the answer is...
Let me know how you get on :)


Thanks again for all the replies. I am feeling more confident about the teaching, especially after I was explaining to some family members what I would be teaching. I found I could talk quite coherently on a general level about what the course was about and I will use the techniques suggested if students ask specific things which I am unsure about.